In the six weeks between August and October the world premiere production of Amelie, A New Musical was drawing in the crowds at Berkeley Repertory Theater. For those of you unfamiliar, this show is based on a French film of the same name (Amelie). The fundamental plot line revolves around the fact that we, humanity, are all interconnected no matter how small the connection may seem. The main character, Amelie, has experienced a life of personal detachment and as she gets older decides that in order to find ways to connect with others she will become an anonymous do-gooder, leading to her meeting the romantic interest in the story.
The movie was a fantastical story with visuals that bordered on the psychedelic as Amelie spent much of the time in her own head about how things connected in the world. The moral of the story is simply not to let life pass you by observing and to be a part of it. If you trust nothing else, believe me when I say that this oversimplified retelling of the plot should not deter you from making the time investment to see the movie or the musical should it suddenly come to your town.
The interesting thing about a production like this is how to find ways to connect the audience to the happenings on stage. Yes, there is a liminal space where the audience will get lost in the story due to the wonderful performances of the actors on stage. There are also those that will be caught up by the amazing vocal performances and songs – it is a musical after all. However, because this show was based on a movie that millions have seen there will inevitably be preconceived expectations when entering the theater as to what they will see. How can you move beyond just stage performances to reach out and grab the more resistant? One of the ways that those at Berkeley Rep did this was through the set design; the other was through the use of lighting and projection.
The set was a relatively simple one visually but had a lot of moving elements that help to create the variety of scenes from a street fruit stand to a train station to several different homes or apartments. The background was painted in a mostly uniform pale blue. The advantage to this is that the projection and lighting will be more reflective and susceptible to whatever color was being projected onto them. This allowed the lighting designer to create the effect of waves traveling from up stage to down stage by increasing and decreasing color temperature and intensity for effect and emphasis.
These kinds of effects are incredible ways to draw folks into the story with unspoken hints and actions as to what is happening on the stage and allow the audience members to easily place themselves in the moment or emotion. What makes it more interesting in this particular show is the fact that the entire story is about finding new ways to connect with others.
The personalities of the characters range from the wholly isolated to the social butterfly, mimicking the broad range of personality types that exist in the real world. The fact that the technical staff found ways to add to the audience’s engagement to the story with such precision must be commended. So many have commended the performances of the leading players of this show, and they are exceptionally deserving for that praise, but this staging goes well beyond a simplistic visual and found ways to bring that fantastical element presented in the movie to life on stage in whole new and different ways. They found ways to connect the audience beyond just the locations on stage and bring the internal emotions of the characters to life. Some might suggest that it lacks subtlety to do so but it allows the story to maintain the consistency of fantasy that existed in the source material. Being as the movie has such a cult following there must remain an element of fantasy to connect the audience being just the surface and performance of the characters on stage. This show is after all entirely about finding ways for people to connect to others and the world around them.
With any luck this show will make its way to Broadway and the increased budget will allow for further expansion of the wonderful art that was created on the stage in Berkeley.